First Color Photo of Earth from Space (Part IV):

Life Magazine & Aftermath

The story of the first color photographs of the Earth from space continues in Otto Berg’s own words, with light edits and editorial notes.

In this new enthusiasm over the montage, my new Boss, Dr Les Meredith, and I decided to take the photo to the National Geographic Society in the hopes that they would be sufficiently interested to reproduce the montage in professional color. They sadly declined based on the very high cost of doing that. On the return to the Lab., we passed by the Life magazine Offices and decided to see if they would print it in true color. Seconds after we entered the Life magazine offices, we were surrounded by every member of that organization, I believe even the janitors. They tried their darnedest to talk us into leaving the photo at Life overnight, but we declined. However, we allowed them to photograph the montage. The very next day, I was asked by Life Magazine in New York City to come to the City as their guest, to explain to their Science Editor how the photo was prepared and what it showed, etc. I explained to the science editor, in detail, how the picture was taken; how I glued them together; what the area in the picture represents; plus answering numerous surprising questions because there was absolutely no predecessor to this item, so the editors textbooks had no chapters on—“Taking pictures of Planet Earth from a skyhook position”!  I got the impression that it wasn’t real! After the long discussion they took me out to a fancy French Restaurant where the menu didn’t even offer a hamburger sandwich! Someone ordered an equivalent to the hamburger for me, but I didn’t see nor taste the slightest resemblance!

The montage appeared as a 2-page spread in the Sept. 5, 1955 Life Magazine!  Finally, my family and friends and even some of my Lab associates were impressed by the montage! I was also until I read the small print and description of how the picture was made; what it showed; etc. and it was all wrong!!! The Life Magazine Science Editor had either: (1) not believed my explanations; or (2) not understood my North Dakota drawl. He had developed his own ideas concerning the picture. He was convinced that the photo was not the true curvature of Earth, but a distorted result due to the high altitude and the rockets position. The description below the photo in Life magazine could qualify as an item that was “not even wrong!”. Fortunately, the spread did not mention my name at all.

That double-page spread in Life magazine triggered a several activities in my professional life for several weeks:

(Activity A) An urgent, official letter to me from an Admirals Office in the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. demanded my presence in a meeting with high Navy Brass to answer their charge that I had shown an official Navy Photograph to the news media (Life) without official permission! I was accompanied to the meeting by Dr. Meredith as well as Dr. Homer Newell, Head of Rocket Sonde. The Navy Brass argued that the photo was official Navy Data and under Naval command. Dr. Newell countered with the statement that ”the photo was a scientific issue and, as such, was under his direction”. Whew!!! A lot of smoke, but no fire!

(Activity B) The montage appeared in every newspaper over the world. Life Magazine AND the Associated Press were continually plagued with telephone calls asking about the picture in Life. The major question was—“Why is it that the Life picture appears to be seeing half of the planet Earth, but we only see a section of the U.S and Northern Mexico?” One day I got a call from the Associated Press editor asking me to answer that troubling question. My answer was simple and direct:

“The photo shows you what you would see if you were 100 miles above a sphere that is 8000 miles in diameter”. Then to explain it in very simple terms I suggested that he would close one eye and hold the other eye 7 inches above the 2-page spread in Life magazine.  He would then realize what he would see if he was in a rocket at an altitude of 100 miles and viewing Planet Earth. There was a pause and then came his response and observation—“! have my open eye 7 inches above the 2-page spread in Life and it’s all blurred!” At that point I realized I had a problem that was greater than simple verbalization and probably needed some simple logic to provide an answer. I suggested to him a parallel problem on a smaller scale. —“I suggested that, in truth, one never sees half of a basketball, for instance. You cannot see one-half of a sphere whose diameter is greater than the distance between your eyes. You merely see the ‘horizon of the basketball!’ (I was quite pleased with that original logic). Well, he didn’t ask any more questions, so I assumed that the difficult worldwide question had been resolved.

A few days later, however, we decided to check (incognito) with the local Washington Associated Press to see if indeed the bad question had been resolved. I called the local Associated Press and asked them this question—“As I look at the photo in Life magazine it appears that I am seeing one-half the picture of Earth, but it only sees a small section of the U.S. and Mexico.

Why? —, Why?—Why?” The answer was prompt and decisive! “I don’t know the answer to your question and there’s nobody in this Washington office that knows. You’ll have to call our New York office!” Bang! My conclusion? They had no previous exposure to a crazy picture like this PLUS they were sure we didn’t know the answer either.

(Activity C) I received a letter from the movie maker, Mike Todd’s office, seeking to borrow the 16 mm movie film to be used in one of his productions. We went through “proper” Navy Department channels to get permission to send to him a copy which was identical to the original. Mike Todd wrote back to me saying they needed the original film My official response was—“The original film would not be available and to be assured that the copies were identical.” A week or so later we got an official letter from the Navy Department with the order—“You WILL send the original film to Mike Todd!” We complied!

As far as I know, the Navy Department has not, to date, received the borrowed original film. The pictures from the film became the opening introduction to Mike Todd’s—” AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS ” Did we get free tickets or passes? No, but neither were we investigated by the Navy Department Ethics Committee!

In the movie trailer for the 1956 Academy Award winning film above, images from the NRL-Berg film are seen at 20-23 seconds in. These images are from the very end of the Berg film as the rocket nose cone carrying the camera and film descended back to Earth. The last space images in the trailer are from a 1950 V-2 launch where the Earth from space was recorded in black and white and tinted blue (no doubt due to the smoother nature of that film compared with the Berg film).

The original impact of the montage upon society has faded greatly in these fifty-some years since its inception, but in addition to its published presence in numerous textbooks on Meteorology, its physical image holds permanent positions of honor at:

  • The Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.:

Credit Tessa Lillian Endter (Otto Berg’s granddaughter)

  • The Chicago Museum as “One of the ten best technical photographs of the decade (1950’s)